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No Soup for You! Tales of Amazing Customer Service

April 28, 2013

Updated May 20, 2013

Customer Service Many, many years ago, when our now four adult kids were wee ones, Sue and I would take the family on adventurous vacations, typically involving tents and sleeping bags. When we look back at those days in the late eighties and early nineties, we scratch our heads and ask whether we were insane. We definitely wouldn’t do it now as older Baby Boomers.

One of the highlights I still recall those decades ago are the wonderful people we met along the way. And some of those experiences were when the six of us paraded into restaurants and campgrounds. If you’re a parent of young kids, or have been down that road, you can relate to what can be either a fun trip to a family restaurant or descending into the bowels of hell.

Sue and I used to be so thankful of the many wonderful people who waited on us in restaurants. Their patience, humor and courtesy were extraordinary. We always left an extra big tip when we had great service. Sue made sure of that, having been a server (waitress in the old days) in high school.

I’ve always wondered why some people self-initiate to show personal leadership in customer service land. The monetary rewards are typically not very significant; more often they’re paltry. However, it’s not always that way when one enters customer service land. Before I share my amazing stories of customer service, check out this clip from the infamous Seinfeld episode of the Soup Nazi. How many of you have experienced similar customer service? And how would you react?

Let’s now look at three companies that have earned well-deserved reputations as having stellar customer service.

LL Bean L.L. Bean

I don’t have to rely on others’ stories here since I’ve compiled my own from 25 years of shopping at this legendary retailer. Whether it has been using L.L. Bean’s online ordering, its call center or visiting its flagship store in Freeport, Maine, and outlet stores in Maine and New Hampshire, this company’s service is extraordinary. We’ve never had poor service, let alone mediocre service. It has always been excellent.

Indeed, when phoning L.L. Bean’s call center to order merchandise, your call is typically answered on the first ring. And if it isn’t, there’s a short note to say that no recorded music will be played while you wait for a few seconds. Thank heavens for this, when other companies insist on blasting you with obnoxious music.

Then when you’re connected with an agent, it’s like going home. I have no idea where L.L. Bean finds their employees, but it’s like talking to a long lost aunt. I love these people.

I’m a Canadian. It’s great to be a patriotic shopper; however, when you’re trying to find a product locally and cannot, or not satisfied with the quality, locating it at L.L. Bean with superb service is a true gift.

Apple Apple Retail Stores
I’ll state up front that I don’t have any Apple products; I’m not an Apple devotee who’s part of the global tribe. However, I have a lot of respect for what Steve Jobs achieved in not just creating innovative devices using minimalist design, but also the other equally important component–service.

Entering an Apple Store is a totally different experience from shopping at, say, Best Buy, Future Shop or a long line-up of technology retailers. At Apple, you’re greeted warmly and attention is focused on your immediate needs. Indeed, an employee greets you within 10 seconds of entering the store. No frowns or bored expressions–just smiles and lots of enthusiasm.

Apple likes to use hip expressions for their retail staff, like Apple Genius, the person who will meet with you to provide the technical fix for a device that’s not working properly. An appointment is needed to see a Genius, and the Apple employee who greets you takes your photo to make it easier to find you in the store when it’s your turn.

Apple’s approach is focused on finding solutions for its existing customers and potential new ones, whether it’s repairing a device, understanding its features more thoroughly or selling the newest product. Focus on the customer, treat him or her with courtesy and respect, and solve their need or want.

Sound easy? Maybe. But it takes management commitment, leadership and sustained training and refinement to maintain that superior level of customer service.

Since writing this post I did have the occasion to visit an Apple store when in Montreal for the May long weekend. It was everything as just explained. I was greeted promptly by a smiling young woman who then sought out an em>Expert. He was patient and thorough in explaining to me the various aspects and additional services. And he knew I was visiting Montreal and wouldn’t be purchasing any merchandise from the store.

Nordstrom Nordstrom
Operating in its present name since 1930, this upscale U.S. retailer, which is finally about to come to Canada, has earned for years stories of its insanely fantastic customer service and return policy. Based in Seattle, it may even surpass that of L.L. Bean. Legends abound of the extraordinary lengths to which Nordstrom employees go to exceed customers’ expectations. Note the word “exceed,” not “satisfy.”

Exceeding the expectations of customers consistently, each and every time, is the defining characteristic of Nordstrom.

Employees have been known to take taxis or even airplanes to deliver an item that a customer left at a hotel. They’ve followed up on their own initiative to reassure a hotel guest who had checked out that their keys would be brought to them. Or the bizarre legend–fact depending upon to whom one speaks–of the customer who returned tires to Nordstrom’s Anchorage, Alaska, hotel where an automotive store was once located. The manager on duty eventually agreed to accept the return.

Fact or fiction? You decide. The point is that these stories have enormously helped Nordstrom build its brand into the premier upscale, customer-oriented retailer in North America.

Self-empowerment is the operative word here when it comes to customer service. Yes, Nordstrom management creates the enabling environment from which employees empower themselves. But it is people–employees–who decide to fully engage with all cylinders firing.

Note the subtle distinction on empowerment.

Over 25 years ago I vividly recall management guru Tom Peters writing and talking enthusiastically about Nordstrom. Nothing’s changed; Nordstrom still rocks.

There are plenty of other examples that depict companies that are totally committed to providing outstanding customer service. Unfortunately, most companies fall into either the mediocre category or, worse, dismal customer service (you may wish to replace the word “dismal” with your preferred adjective).

Customer service is not rocket science. It does, however, demand 100% commitment. I like to think of it in similar terms to Toyota’s Lexus division tag line: The pursuit of perfection.

You know darn well that people are human and that they have bad days. In addition to doing contract research and writing, including blogging, I work part-time in frontline customer service in the hardware section of an international home improvement chain. It helps keep me firmly rooted to reality. I have days when I feel a bit off. When I feel my service is slipping I give myself a poke and re-orient my behavior. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. No one’s perfect. The world would be really boring if we were perfect.

But if you keep that vision of perfection in sight, you will strive towards it each and every day. And if you’re leading a team, whether it’s directly or indirectly related to serving clients and customers, your number job is to keep just the right leadership tension present as you inspire your followers through your daily actions.

Are you ready to lead?

If a window of opportunity appears, don’t pull down the shade
– Tom Peters

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